Emotional Pain and Suffering are Different

By May 15, 2022August 15th, 2022Define self
Emotional Suffering can be reduced

Emotional pain does “hurt”.

There is a difference between pain and suffering, and sometimes individuals create more suffering than the initial pain warrants. Emotion pain literally hurts because it can fire the same brain areas that are activated for physical pain. This brain functioning shows the reality of emotional pain. This makes sense evolutionarily because physical pain came first, so the emotional parallel evolved to just use the same brain circuits.

Physical pain is a biological signal that something is damaging our physical wellbeing, the integrity of our physical self. Physical pain is real. It triggers nerve pain circuits and physiological responses and behaviours. The withdrawal from something hot or perceived to be dangerous is an example of the objective behavioural response. Likewise, emotional pain is a signal that something is damaged in our emotional wellbeing. How one feels about this after it occurs is where suffering comes in. It’s interesting to note that “withdrawal” is also a type of emotional response to emotional pain.

Emotional Suffering is a subjective experience.

Individuals define suffering in different ways, but they include the subjective feeling of pain or discomfort. People suffer from colds, disease, breakups, and hardships of all kinds. But suffering is different and separate from hardship. It’s secondary to an original discomfort, and it’s the result of how one perceives the discomfort. Muscle pain can result from an intense workout and a person could feel good about that. A relationship breakup could be a relief that something very challenging is over. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any discomfort or challenge. Emotional pain is real, but it differs from the suffering that might follow.

Imagine being forced against your will to do physical labour for 6 hours a day for four years. Most people would “suffer” through this hardship. Now imagine that you are an Olympic athlete who loves the workouts, even if they are hard, and is excited about the challenge and the goal of winning a medal. What’s the difference? Perception.

Emotional pain happens. Then stories are created.

Emotional pain is the experience of some perceived threat or damage to our emotional self, the “sense” of who we are, and our psychological self. But then, like physical pain, we want to understand it, because want the pain to go away.

This is where suffering can start. We create a story about the meaning of the emotional pain. The story is inherently subjective. This story can easily be based on misunderstandings or misinformation. Suppose Chris insults Pat. Pat could make up a story about why this happened and create “meaning” about the event. For example, “Chris insulted me because I’m stupid, I’m different”. Now that story becomes the source of the suffering for Pat.

Don’t add insult to injury. Don’t add emotional suffering to emotional pain.

The insult above can’t create a true feeling of pain. Only the perception and the meaning we give it can. Unless you are up against a supervillain, the sound waves from speech can’t actually cause a pain sensation! A brain scan would show one’s pain circuits activating to the degree that they perceived it to be painful. Notice the word perceived.

Let’s say Jan stubbed their toe. It hurts a bit. Jan almost fell. But they don’t make up any stories about it. Maybe the fear of falling startled them. They have a fleeting thought to “watch my step” and maybe they cursed the uneven sidewalk. Then they forget about it. They have some pain, but not suffering. There was no story. One could make up the story that they are clumsy, need to be more careful and pay more attention. And why doesn’t “someone” fix the sidewalk? And get frustrated about the lack of concern people have. This subjective thinking, this story making, just adds suffering to the experience.

Emotional Pain happens. Emotional Suffering doesn’t have to.

How much do we get our emotional toes stubbed but then make up a story about what it means and add suffering to the pain? We subjectively perceive emotional pain, unlike physical pain, because there are no emotional pain nerve receptors. In our earlier example, Pat could easily make up the story that Chris is rude and forget about the insult and experience no suffering. A close friend of Chris could say, “Ouch! What’s up with you grouchy?” because they just made up a different story (something is going wrong with Chris). Again, no suffering, because of different perceptions about the event.

More differentiation, less emotional pain, less emotional suffering

One aspect of being more differentiated is the ability to recognize and differentiate subjective thinking from objective thinking. Stories from facts. Objective thinking is experienced as reporting on what one observed. For example, “Chris moved their lips into an arc shape” would be the objective observation of a smile. So, Pat, a co-worker, subjectively interprets Chris’ facial expression as a “smile”. We experience subjective thinking as “stories” with judgements, interpretations, and assignments of fault. In this example, Pat’s story could be “Chris is laughing at my mistake. I’m such an idiot.” This is a story, an interpretation and a judgement. But is there any objective truth in this story? Pat and Chris would have to discuss in order to find out. But the more Pat can recognize their own subjective thinking versus objective observations, the less likely they are to add suffering to pain.

I know a person who had constant headaches in their seventies. They lived fully and ignored the headaches. The headaches were an ongoing pain, but they chose to suffer less.

Fact versus Fiction. Differentiation in the Brain.

There are no perfect parents, partners, or children. There are no perfect families. Events happen. What stories do you make up, have you made up about your family? How objective are those stories? Working to differentiate the facts of an event separate from the stories about the event and the meaning created (the feelings, judgements, interpretations) trains the brain to be more differentiated. (This is one value of getting family history from multiple people. It can help to separate fact from fiction.) Thus, a more differentiated person works to understand the part they played in any situation. They learn from that. So then they can recognize how to not have it happen again. This does not negate feelings of regret about the past or anxiousness about the future. However, they don’t need to suffer based on subjective stories involving interpretation, judgement, and blame.

Chose to reduce emotional suffering.

Events happen. We create stories. Emotional pain happens, and we create feelings, judgements and interpretations. Work to separate the objective facts from the subjective opinions and stories. This can help one understand the difference between emotional pain and emotional suffering. And work to reduce emotional suffering. This is a benefit of working on being more differentiated in one’s thinking.

For an excellent review of pain circuits, see:


Read more about differentiation here: https://www.thebowencenter.org/differentiation-of-self